Posted February 20, 2009 2:49 am by with 8 comments

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By Jim Tobin

A couple of weeks, ago, Geoff Livingston wrote a post called “What Will You Do When Social Media Isn’t Special Anymore?” While I agree with part of his premise (that social media won’t remain the shiny new object forever), the other part (that traditional agencies will soak up the social media work) is simply wrong. Here’s why:

Historically, specialists stick around

Geoff argues that once the PR, advertising and interactive agencies figure this all out, they’ll take the work back. This should be true, but it never is.

  • 1996: “Once advertising agencies figure out HTML, they’ll do all the web development. These interactive agencies will be absorbed.” Should’ve been true. Wasn’t.
  • 2000: “Once the interactive agencies figure out the tricks of SEO, specialists in search engine optimization will go away.” Again, didn’t happen.
  • Today: “Once the PR people, or the ad people, or the digital people, or maybe the SEO people, figure out this social stuff…”  Not going to happen.

In fact, it never happens.

Big brands that are already utilizing social media agencies include Ford, Microsoft, Intel, SAP, Citibank, Coke.  The list goes on. These folks have access to all types of large, talented agencies, but they see a need for specialists—for some of what they do.

Divergence is the most powerful force in the universe

In their outstanding 2004 book, “The Origin of Brands,” Ries and Ries demonstrate how the world gets infinitely more complicated and products, and specialties continue to branch out. The telephone splits into landlines and cell phones. Landlines split into traditional and VOIP. Cell phones split into texting phones, smart phones, flip phones.

And on and on.

What’s really next for social media agencies

Certainly it’s early for all of us, but more likely than being threatened from “above” by traditional agencies, the history of divergence tells us that over time we’ll be threatened from “below”.  Specialists in one subset of social media will emerge (they already are), and we’ll find ourselves competing with them in a couple years.

That’s how it works in advertising. That’s how it works in PR. That’s how it works in interactive. That’s how it works in SEO. Because that’s how it works.

Will traditional agencies “do” social media?

Of course they will. Just like ad agencies build websites. And interactive firms build SEO into what they do.

And some clients will prefer that model. The “Can you just handle all this for me?” model. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Just don’t expect the genie to go back in the bottle, with social media agencies disappearing. History just isn’t on the side of that argument.

About Jim Tobin

Jim Tobin is president of Ignite Social Media and author of the book Social Media is a Cocktail Party: Why You Already Know the Rules of Social Media Marketing.